Drought Crisis 2012: It Isn’t Looking Good for Our Food Supply

The worst U.S. drought in decades might cost the economy more than $50 billion.

(Photo: Dave Reede/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Analysts are saying that when all the dust clears, the worst U.S. drought since 1988 may cost the national economy $50 billion dollars in lost crops. A natural disaster area now extends from coast to coast—across 1,000 counties in 26 states—the largest such declaration by the USDA in history. The disaster status will at least provide some relief for ailing farmers and ranchers, letting them apply for low-interest loans to mitigate their losses.

Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that he can’t make any guarantees about next year, but consumer food prices should remain stable through the end of this year. However, for local food producers who sell directly to the consumer or cooperatives, the weather is literally sucking them dry.

Farmers unable to irrigate

With too little rainfall to irrigate, North Carolina farmers, including those who raise livestock, are taking an especially heavy hit this summer, says Raleigh-based Aimee Schmidt, an independent contractor who works with small farmers and livestock producers around sustainable practices. In some cases, she says, it is more cost effective for ranchers to let the grass die and supplement a reduced herd’s diet with manufactured feed. (Reuters reported last week that in the Midwest, some farmers were thinking about chopping up their damaged corn crop to feed to their cows.)

MORE: Is Severe U.S. Drought Drying Up Obama's Chances?

Schmidt says this year’s early spring and a glut of triple-digit summer days have caused some growers to forgo the planting of crops that are sensitive to heat in the early growth stage in favor of crops that are normally planted later in the season. In some cases, this tradeoff will affect the bottom line by having to plant a less valuable crop in favor of a hardier, less desirable one.

Farmers who have a retail presence at farmers markets or sell their meat and produce through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs have loyal customers who recognize the value of local, sustainable food production and are more likely to tolerate a price increase. Those who do not, she says, are hit much harder.

“The majority of farms in this state are less than 500 acres,” says Schmidt, who is Chief Sustainability Officer for the Silver Lining Institute. “Razor-thin profit margins increase the likelihood that a single weather event can put a farmer out of business.”

Co-ops already feeling drought’s effects

A thousand miles away, in Wisconsin, a poor growing season is hurting food cooperatives’ ability to fill orders with the institutions and families they serve. Fifth Season Cooperative in Westby—which primarily serves institutions in southwest Wisconsin and northwest Iowa—expects to distribute around 400 cases of fresh produce per week. But with the amount of food coming in from area farms at half its normal levels, Fifth Season moved just 120-130 cases of produce per week in July. The cooperative hired a packing assistant for its Viroqua, Wis., hub in May—then sent him home for two weeks a few months later for lack of work.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” says Diane Chapeta, Operations Manager at Fifth Season. “This may change if we get enough rain in the near future to boost production. The majority of our growers are not irrigating their fields, and most do not have the infrastructure in place to do so.”

Last week, federal officials declared that 43 percent of the Badger State’s corn crop is now in “poor-to-very-poor condition.” Chapeta says a few areas of the state enjoyed an inch or less of rain last week, but it was spotty—and much more is needed for food systems there to return to normal.

Are you prepared to pay more for food as the drought’s impact spreads?

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